Mugabe seeks to delay Zimbabwe election by two weeks

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has filed an urgent application with the country's top court to push back crucial elections by two weeks, following pressure by regional leaders.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa told AFP he had filed papers on Tuesday that sought "a postponement of the date for the harmonised elections from July 31, 2013 to August 14, 2013."

The announcement comes just days after Southern African leaders pressed Mugabe to delay the polls to allow more time for democratic reforms.

In setting the original election date, Mugabe had said he was complying with the constitutional court's ruling to hold elections by July 31.

The elections will choose a successor to Zimbabwe's uncomfortable power-sharing government, which was forged four years ago as a path away from a decade of political violence.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, a long-time Mugabe rival, has called for reforms -- to free the media, depoliticise the security services and make sure the electoral roll is accurate -- before the vote is held.

It was not immediately clear whether the court would grant the extension, or whether two more weeks will be enough to get Tsvangirai's demands met.

Civil society groups welcomed the prospect of an extra fortnight to allow for the completion of the voter registration process.

But, they said, the extra time would do little to change deeply-ingrained attitudes or dissuade Mugabe's supporters from voter intimidation.

"Fourteen days may be enough to change the laws... but not enough to bring really change on the ground," Trust Mhanda a member of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human rights, told AFP in Johannesburg.

"It must not just be a legal change, but that law must be implemented on the ground, and 14 days is not enough for that. Old habits don't die easily."

In fact, some rights groups allege that voter intimidation has intensified since Mugabe announced the election date.

"The environment has suddenly changed. Right now there is a lot of tension, tension created by this proclamation... the ordinary person is gripped with fear," said Netty Musanhu, director of Musasa, an non-governmental body battling violence against women in Zimbabwe.

Rights groups also reported an "intensifying clampdown" on activists, saying 681 human rights defenders had been detained or arrested on "frivolous" charges in the six months up to April this year.

They want foreign observers to accelerate their deployment and for monitors to come not just from the region, but from across the world.

The African Union last week announced the deployment of long term election watchers starting on June 15.

Leaders from the 15-nation Southern African Development Community had on Saturday flexed their muscles and issued an unusual rebuke of Mugabe, asking that he go back to the court and seek a delay.

The SADC summit called on all parties to "create a conducive environment for the holding of peaceful, credible, free and fair elections".

"During proceedings at the said summit, I, in particular was directed to make an urgent application before this honourable court to seek a postponement," Chinamasa's filing read.

"In my capacity as the minister responsible for the administration of the electoral act, I pray for an order for the extension of the elections to the 14th of August."

Activists have also expressed scepticism the application to the Constitutional Court could be an academic exercise, to be seen to be complying with the SADC's decision.

"You get the sense that their approaching the court is a compliance issue rather than anything else," Thabani Nyoni, spokesman of the Crisis Coalition in Zimbabwe said.

"There is no political will per se to really convince the courts to change its decision," he said.

"It's a non-committal application, which is actually... setting up the court to say 'there was no sufficient evidence to convince us of the importance of this going forward,'" said Nyoni.